Offseason Grades: Los Angeles Lakers
The Point Forward will grade every team’s offseason over the next few weeks. Click here for the complete archive.
Additions: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Farmar, Elias Harris, Ryan Kelly (No. 48 pick in 2013 draft)
Losses: Dwight Howard, Antawn Jamison, Earl Clark, Chris Duhon, Andrew Goudelock, Metta World Peace (amnestied)
Other Moves: Re-signed Robert Sacre
What Went Right: The very best thing that you can say about the Lakers’ summer is this: Once general manager Mitch Kupchak knew he was beaten, he simply admitted defeat.
For longtime, well-respected and fully entrenched executives such as Kupchak, an NBA summer is like a hand of cards or a game of chess within an extended tournament. Surrendering, folding, resigning — that’s never the goal or the ideal outcome, but everyone from card sharks and chess masters on down eventually reaches a point where the best play is to pack it in and go on to the next one.
Pride, ego, ownership, expectations, pressure, impatience and the health and age of the key roster pieces are just a few of the many factors that can stand between an executive and his white flag. One assumes that every executive has a hypothetical backup plan in mind for a worst-case scenario, but we don’t see it come to fruition all that often. Instead, GMs prolong and compound sticky situations by pursuing desperate contingency plans, or ownership decides that it’s time to find a new guy to unravel the old guy’s mistakes.
The Lakers lost Dwight Howard, and they lost Dwight Howard bad. The franchise became the butt of a million jokes nationwide with its failed “Stay!” billboards. The Lakers watched, prone, as the Rockets pushed all the right buttons in their recruiting pitch, while the details of Howard’s frustrations in Los Angeles bubbled to the surface. And, once they lost, often-mocked Lakers VP Jim Buss willingly played the part of the scorned ex.
“[Howard] was never really a Laker,” Buss told the Hollywood Reporter. “He was just passing through.”
Come on, man. Really?
From start to finish, the one-year Howard era in L.A. couldn’t have gone worse: He didn’t click with Kobe Bryant. Coach Mike Brown was fired after five games. Howard’s father took shots at coach Mike D’Antoni. Howard didn’t seem comfortable on offense or dominant on defense, he played through pain and had his toughness questioned, and he was ejected from the last game of the season as San Antonio swept the Lakers in the first round.
The whole thing was a total, giant letdown. One can only imagine how frustrating it was for Kupchak, who swung the blockbuster deal in the first place. Imagine the ecstasy of selling Andrew Bynum at the absolute height of his value in exchange for the best center in the NBA. Now imagine Kupchak’s anguish as all that ugliness began spilling forth as soon as the Lakers took the court for the 2012 preseason.
Resisting every urge to truly salvage his summer in pursuit of a cobbled-together, competitive roster, Kupchak admitted defeat and proceeded to the worst-case scenario backup plan: preparing for the summer of 2014. Yes, Kupchak’s hands were clearly tied by a payroll that was the highest in the league last season and on track to exceed the luxury-tax threshold again this year. Yes, a lack of quality trade assets further limited his options. Steve Blake, Jordan Hill and Jodie Meeks aren’t attractive chips. Pau Gasol? Not particularly easy to move when the 33-year-old stands to make $19.3 million, one of the league’s highest salaries. Still, Kupchak punted, and the Lakers will be better for it, even if it means the franchise could very well miss the postseason for just the third time since 1977.
Admitting defeat here amounted to saying goodbye to 2010 hero World Peace via the amnesty clause, a move that cut the team’s tax bill and potentially set up a scenario where the Lakers could get completely out of the tax this season with the right midseason trade(s). The strategy also included signing a series of short-term, low-dollar deals: Kaman, Farmar and Johnson were all given one-year deals, while Young was added at the veteran’s minimum for a maximum of two seasons. No meaningful future salary was added, keeping the Lakers’ 2014 cap space house in order. L.A. will face decisions (and negotiations) with Bryant and Gasol next summer, but they will otherwise have incredibly clean books to go star-hunting via free agency or trade.
One other nice by-product of punting to 2014: The Lakers are on track to get their best draft pick in years in what is regarded as the best draft class in years. Solid timing. (God help Adam Silver if the first lottery drawing of his tenure as NBA commissioner sees the Lakers win the rights to Canadian prodigy Andrew Wiggins.)
The end result for Kupchak? A team that will likely finish anywhere from seventh to 13th in the West, depending on how far Bryant can carry the group on a rehabbed Achilles and how healthy/productive Gasol and Steve Nash, 39, can be. That, plus some brighter days ahead thanks to a 2014 free-agent class that could include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and others. Again: Not the goal, not ideal, but the right decision.
What Went Wrong: Writing at any length here would just be beating a dead horse. Howard has moved on, and so should we.
One nice aspect of handing out mostly minimum deals is that it’s hard to make a serious mistake. Young’s price represents the ultimate hometown discount: The L.A. native signed for $5.6 million with the Sixers in 2012 and will make less than one-quarter of that this season. Johnson, a former No. 4 pick, is coming off a rookie deal that paid him $4.3 million last season. He, too, will play for less than a quarter of that in 2013-14. Even though Kaman is a shell of the player he was when he made the 2010 All-Star team, his deal with the Lakers ($3.2 million for one year) is less than half of what he earned last year and his lowest salary since his rookie deal. Are any of those three players good? Not really. Kaman, 31, was barely above average in Player Efficiency Rating last season, playing just 20.7 minutes per game, and the other two were below average. They are definitely not saviors, but they’re not being paid to wear that hat.
Even the departure of Clark, who signed a two-year, $9 million deal (non-guaranteed second year) with the Cavaliers, wasn’t as bad as it might have seemed at first. Lakers fans rightfully appreciated the sparks Clark offered early last year, but Kupchak was clearly right to let him walk. Nothing about Clark’s overall season — 44 percent shooting, 12.4 PER, an on-court net rating of minus-2.6 — suggested that he was worth the $4.5 million per year that Cleveland gave him, especially considering the Lakers’ luxury-tax position. L.A. lost a player — an occasionally exciting one — but there was no reasonable alternative.
It goes without saying that the departures of Jamison and Duhon did not cause any teary eyes in Lakerland.
Grade: D-minus. Kupchak nobly knocking over his king gets him a handshake and a pat on the back, but there’s no way this summer — given the expectations created in 2012 — was anything but a terrible loss. Here’s to a speedy recovery and a gallant 2013-14 season from Bryant.